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songwriting

Now that’s how to write a song.

Springsteen isn’t trying to impress you with his writing. Rather he’s attempting to draw you into a conversation. That’s why I think the song “Devils and Dust” is one of the greatest anti-war songs ever written. It’s so good, you may not even realize it’s an anti-war song, and that is exactly what makes it so effective.

By assuming the point of view of a soldier, Bruce creates a statement without marginalizing anyone in the process. Instead of nailing people in the face with an opinion, he paints pictures that require the listener to ask questions. I’m sure Bruce hopes these questions will lead you to his same conclusions, but he leaves it up to you.

Springsteen certainly isn’t the originator of this approach. Neither is Dylan or even Shakespeare. King David uses it in his most famous Psalm “23”, where he assumes the role of a sheep. And as a communicator, Jesus applied it almost exclusively (Mathew 13:34).

So take a tip from Jesus, and Springsteen: Tell a story. If people are smart, they’ll get it, and I think people are smarter than we give them credit for. Don’t you?

The ultimate measure of a song comes down to whether or not it moves someone. If a song is going to move someone, it has to start with you. I have many principles that I apply when it comes to writing, but only one rule:

If a song doesn’t move me, then it isn’t a song.

Write music that is, first, meaningful and important to you. If the music doesn’t touch you, then why should it touch anyone else?

As far as “worship” songs go, why would you offer Jesus a song that doesn’t even touch you? Would a song move Jesus if it didn’t even move you? Don’t y0u think he’s worth more than that?

I think it’s the difference in Cain and Able. Able offered something that he valued himself, but Cain only offered what was obligatory. Cain fulfilled a requirement, but still never gave God what God really wanted. I don’t think the object they offered was ever the issue. Though it may have symbolic significance, I don’t think God liked the sheep better than the produce. It was what each offering meant to the giver that God was concerned about. God doesn’t need the sheep or grain. He doesn’t need your song to feel good about himself. He wants you. If you come with the song then God wants the song. Otherwise it’s just an activity, a program… a ritual.

Around the world Clint Eastwood is most famous for his brilliant one-liners, but, believe it or not, what made his career may have actually been the things he didn’t say. As an actor, Eastwood is known for blotting entire pages of dialog out of his scripts. In an ‘85 interview with Rolling Stone he explained “In a real A picture, you let the audience think along with the movie; in a B picture you explain everything”.

The same principal can be true as a songwriter. It’s important to keep in mind that a person’s imagination is far more vivid than your language or melody will ever be. Because of this, it doesn’t necessarily help your story/message/cause to insult their intelligence with over-explanation or ultra-simplification. In my opinion, the ultimate goal is not to simply relay information, but to actually draw people into the conversation. If you explain everything away, it doesn’t give them an opportunity to think along with you, and actually limits their ability to enter into a conversation.

I’ll give you an example from my own work (I know it seems a little pretentious, but it is easy because I know my own songs better than anyone else’s)

“Dress us up in the blood of a son”

I’ve seen several people reword this line to say blood of “the” son, but that isn’t what I wrote. Simply using the word “a” instead of “the” gives the listener a chance to ask themselves some very important questions such as: “If this is a son, then was he actually someone’s son, and how did that someone feel about the blood that was drawn?” They would probably have to answer: “the same way I’d feel if it was my son”. The conclusion they would hopefully come to would be that Jesus wasn’t just the Son of Glory (insert bright lights and cheesy white-girl vocals here); Jesus was also someone’s little boy. He was also a son.

Notice all the words I just wrote in that last paragraph in an attempt to explain a thought, when the more powerful explanation is still in the simple word “a”. It gives the listeners an opportunity to ask themselves who the “son” is, and that is far more important than the precision of my information.

There is certainly no way to quantify where exactly art ends and propaganda begins. Probably all art contains some percentage of propaganda and vice versa . In the same way, aside from Jesus himself, there is probably no such thing as a 100% pure motive. It’s always a mixed bag.

But, with that in mind, we could say that Propaganda, at the far end of the spectrum, exists solely for the message it carries, and Art, on the far other end of the spectrum, exists for itself. Many of your answers seemed to have political propaganda in mind but that doesn’t have to be the case.
I would say: “Propaganda” is simply a means to an end as “Art” is both an end and a means unto itself.
For instance, if no one on the planet ever heard my music, I would still write and sing. Now the fact that others do listen to it, and I make a living doing it means that at times it must be modified. This doesn’t mean it has become propaganda but certain neutral changes may need to be made in order to accommodate a listener. (Here’s some advice: When you have listeners, you get to sing more often.)
Propaganda doesn’t have to be negative, but people generally despise it when they recognize it (as viewed here in your responses). People despise it because it isn’t sincere. It isn’t something you say because you “want” to say it, its something you say because you “have” to say it. Even if the motive behind it is pure, it still repulses people if they even feel that “motive behind it” behind it.
Art certainly can and should have tell a story, but if people feel that it only exists to prove a point or express a message then it turns them off. It certainly turns me off. No matter how “true” it is, I’m just not interested in it if you don’t believe in it yourself. I’m not saying that we should only do what we want to do. A community expression should at least attempt to include the community. Still, I think we should create art and write songs we actually mean. Not just what we’re supposed to sing.
Do you think that “church” art/music feels more like art or propaganda? Is this good? Should it change? How should it change?

I recently responded to a blog comment and so many people told me to post it as an actual blog that I’ve decided to do just that. If you want the total context of the response check it out here but you don’t necessarily need it. I’ve edited/expanded it slightly to help it make more sense on its own.


Also I’d like to say that the person I responded to seems to be a very intelligent person and had several interesting points. I don’t want anyone to think that this is knock against him in any way. His comment just got me thinking about what makes me so passionate about this subject.

Words:

God didn’t choose these words. Men did. The Bible wasn’t even written in English. So someone else had to choose the way these words would be translated. There are actually 7 different words in the old testament that someone decided to translate as the single english word “praise” and several other words that someone decided to translate into the single word “worship”. My personal favorite means “to kiss, like a dog licking it’s master”. Look it up.

There is nothing “holy” about the letters “h” “o” “l” “y”. Words are just letters and sounds that represent meaning. And when we use the same phrases they lose their association with the powerful meanings behind them. The truth has not lost power, just the words we use to tell it. That’s why we need new words. If we never changed the way we say things we would only be able to worship in Hebrew and Greek, which would mean nothing to us.

These words must mean something to us otherwise worship is little more than a base ritual, not unlike any other religion, sect, or cult.

As far as singing “about” God as apposed to singing “to” him (of which I like to do both), one way to show affection to someone is to speak or sing about them in their presence. It’s the same thing as speaking or singing to them, only sometimes it’s even more meaningful. Besides this, they do it in the Psalms and even the angels in revelation sang “about” him, not to him. “Holy is” not “Holy you are”.

Final thoughts:

I think we need to repent for making the beautiful expression of this divinely mysterious romance, that we so crudely have interpreted “worship”, into some dead ritualistic obligation. God is a real person, not some brain in the sky, not letters on a page, not a fairy tale.

Last time I wrote a little bit about how overused or common phrases tend to lose power or potency. To this discussion I would like to add that any moron can tell you what’s wrong with something, but few can tell you how to make it better, and even fewer have the commitment to actually do it. Let me just say I don’t want to be that moron. Writing a song is hard. The easy part of this process is recognizing “dead” wording. The difficult part is finding new ways to say things that don’t just make sense but actually impact the listener.

I recently had a five-minute conversation about songwriting with one of my songwriting heroes, Kevin Prosch. (Kevin may be the greatest unsung hero of the worship movement. In my opinion he could be the most influential worship leader of the last 20 years. Pick any successful modern worship band and, 9 times out of 10, I can trace what they do back to Kevin. )

Kevin told me that whenever he sees a sentence, or any group of words weather it be on a sign, in a book, or on a magazine cover he’ll reorder them in as many ways possible to see how many new lines he can make with the same words.

This is a great exercise as a songwriter and is a good way to experiment with new ways to say things in a lyric or song. If your lyrics are boring, flip them around a little. See how many things you can say with some of the same words.

Want to see how a master does it? Watch Bob Dylan in this video.


A note about lyric:

Words lose potency with overuse.

My rule of thumb is if you’ve heard a term or phrase before, then don’t use it. Never use clichés, “dead” words, or tired metaphors.

A line doesn’t have to be especially clever or extreme to deliver an impact. It just has to be “heard”.

Here is a line from the chorus of my song “Skeleton Bones”:

“Oh let us adore the son of glory dressed in love”

There is nothing innovative or revolutionary about this line whatsoever. The idea isn’t new. I didn’t use any big words, and it isn’t difficult to understand. But as far as I can tell, it’s not been said before exactly like this.

I don’t think the specific term “Son of Glory” is used in the Bible at all and that’s exactly why I used it/possibly invented it. At the same time it isn’t at all unbiblical either. Christ in you is the “hope of Glory” and Jesus is known as the “son of man”, “the son of God” , the “son of David “ etc… so Jesus could easily and biblically be described as “the Son of Glory”.

I know this particular line obviously won’t “make” or “break” a song, but if you apply the idea to a whole song, then you could end up with something that sounds more original and authentic.

Just think of how boring it would have been if I had written:

“Come praise God, He’s so Holy, His name is lifted up”

The line is true. Just nobody will ever know how true it is because they won’t ever hear it. It will slip right by them. It will be true and silent.

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